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SANDY BANKS

Drinking at age 18 or 21? Flip a coin

September 06, 2008|SANDY BANKS

The guys from Sigma Nu were one pitcher of beer into a game of "baseball" when I took a seat at their table in USC's on-campus bar and asked for an interview.

I wanted to know how they felt about the suggestion by a group of college presidents that the legal drinking age be lowered to 18.

They wanted to finish their drinking game. It involved flipping quarters into cups of beer representing base hits and downing the drink the coin landed in.

So we talked while they drank. It was Thursday afternoon -- the beginning of the weekend for college students.

"Technically, we're binge drinking," senior Davis Lawyer said as he downed a beer, then dipped his fingers into his cup and retrieved the drippy quarter.

Lawyer, a political science major from Memphis, said letting 18-year-olds drink is sensible "from a cost-benefit standpoint" because it would eliminate "the bureaucracy of enforcement" and generate revenue from alcohol sales.

"And if drinking at 18 was accepted," he said, "it would take away the edge you get from being the kid who drinks a six-pack to show everybody you're cool."

Scott Palmer, an accounting major from Sierra Madre, worried that changing the law might make drinking too easy. "I probably didn't feel this way at 18," he said, "but now I think 21 is an appropriate age. People who wait until they're 21 to drink alcohol are probably not going to abuse it."

And New Jersey finance major Scott Peterson doesn't think the age limit much matters. "Anybody who wants a fake ID can get one," he said.

Judging from the empties piling up on their table, the 21-year-old fraternity brothers were well on their way to the "five drinks at one sitting" binge-drinking standard. Still, they seemed to me thoughtful, polite and stone-cold sober.

And I -- as a mother of college students -- was appalled not so much by the quantity of beer they downed, but by the way they gulped it from shared plastic cups with quarters floating on the bottom. Those filthy coins, germy tables, dirty fingers . . .

After all those years of "Wash your hands!," this is what our kids are doing in college.

The call for an "informed and dispassionate debate" about the drinking age went out last month in a statement signed by the presidents of more than 100 colleges, including Occidental, Pomona and Whittier in Southern California.

The campaign's leader is John McCardell, former president of Vermont's Middlebury College.

He contends that the law that makes drinking under 21 illegal is generally ignored by college students, leads to dangerous binge drinking and makes college presidents look like . . . well, weenies. (Not exactly his word.)

"We're expected to do what parents have been unable to do, what law enforcement is unable to do -- enforce the law," he told me in a phone interview. "And the better we do it, the deeper underground underage drinking goes."

He'd rather offer supervised drinking on campus than have "students doing shots in their dorm room before the party" because they're not allowed to drink in public, he said. "Give us more tools than 'abstinence-only.' "

In other words, parents should stop pretending their kids don't drink and untie college administrators' hands. Students might learn to drink responsibly if college became a sort of Drinking 101.

I suppose that makes sense in academia. So many 18-year-olds arrive at college already drinking, enforcing the law on campus seems pointless, like shutting the barn door after the horse has run off.

But the notion that kids will drink more responsibly if we give them our permission seems naive to me. More likely, removing the legal barrier will encourage more students to experiment and ratchet up the pressure on high school kids to drink.

Already, surveys taken each fall at USC show that almost half of entering freshmen drink; by Thanksgiving, the number rises to 80%. Blame peer pressure, the freedom of dorm life, the unending circuit of campus parties.

But don't blame the rules.

t its heart, this debate is not just about underage drinking, but about who should take responsibility. McCardell is tired of being the bad cop. As a mother, I'm tired too.

Parents -- and I'm not letting myself off the hook -- often practice "don't ask, don't tell" while we're raising our teenagers. We'd rather snoop through their rooms or pull a few strands from their comb and test their hair than ask where they've been, get to know their friends, set a curfew and make it stick.

Instead, we loosen the reins, roll back the rules and count down the days until we can ship them off to the safe confines of the university. But colleges -- like families -- are struggling to find the right mix of freedom, safety and responsibility.

What McCardell wants us to know is that our children bring their problems with them, and he's not able to solve them for us.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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